Although she’s starred in more acclaimed films, Little Monsters might just be the movie that best embodies the spirit of the Cult of Lupita Nyong’o. All of the qualities we’ve come to love about her — beauty, style, class, wit, charisma, smarts, vivacity — are on full display in this Australian zombie-comedy, as she inches closer and closer to something akin to this generation’s Audrey Hepburn. But just as important as how we the viewers perceive her is how the characters in the film perceive her. That is, they fawn over her with the sort of veneration and awe that’s rarely afforded to black women in mainstream (non-”black”) cinema. I’m talking “deceased white woman in a Dateline episode” reverence here.
That said, Nyong’o actually isn’t the primary protagonist in the film — which is emblematic of the superficial level of representation afforded to women of color, but since Little Monsters is still much better than most films in that regard, I won’t piss on this parade. The story here is told through Dave (Alexander England), a crude, self-absorbed, Cro-magnon Hemsworth who just split with his longtime girlfriend in part because he didn’t want to have kids.
Dave moves in temporarily with his sister and her 5-year-old son Felix, for whom he proves to be a terrible role model. He gets a chance to redeem himself, however, when he volunteers to chaperone the boy’s school field trip to a nearby farm — granted, he does so only because he wants to slip his nephew’s teacher, Miss Caroline (Nyong’o), the ol’ didgeridoo. While on the trip, however, Dave’s thirstiness takes a backseat to a zombie outbreak originating at a US Army testing facility inconveniently located just down the road from the farm.
Little Monsters is a fairly predictable douchebag-with-a-heart-of-gold redemption tale that wins us over with its bawdy humor and talented cast — in particular Nyong’o, who, despite not being the primary lead, is the main selling point. Josh Gad, meanwhile, is effectively slimy as Teddy McGiggle, an American kids show host visiting Australia whose cheery demeanor masks a trash heap personality.
Miss Caroline’s bright yellow sundress reflects her character’s status as the shining light within the group, her morality offsetting Teddy’s selfishness, her decisiveness offsetting Dave’s unpreparedness and most pointedly, her dedication to her students shielding them from Donner Party-level trauma. To that end, she convinces them that the outbreak is an extravagant game of tag whose goal is to not let the “funny-looking people” touch them.
For all the off-color humor in Little Monsters, Miss Caroline’s relationship with the kids is actually heartwarming, and watching her lead a dozen or so 5-year-olds in a single-file line, mother duck-style, through a horde of ravenous zombies elicits genuine pangs of anxiety. Perhaps more than any other horror sub-genre, zombie films inspire viewers to fantasize about what they would do in that situation, and in that sense, Little Monsters is particularly harrowing. While you could see yourself maneuvering solo through a slow-moving throng of the undead, doing so with a gaggle of defenseless preschoolers seems like a recipe for disaster (as those of us who’ve had to get preschoolers to perform non-zombie-imperiled tasks can attest).
Sure, Little Monsters isn’t as award-worthy as Nyong’o’s career-defining 12 Years a Slave or Black Panther, nor is it as provocative and envelope-pushing as Us, but simply being a “zom com” with a black female lead means it occupies rarified air (along with the much lesser Boy Eats Girl, starring Samantha Mumba). While it’s no Shaun of the Dead — the gold standard for zom coms — it’s more humorous, heartfelt and satisfying than most of this ilk (like the higher-profile The Dead Don’t Die from earlier in the year), with plenty of laughs and charm to spare. And frankly, I could watch Lupita Nyong’o dodging zombies on a loop for hours: